On to Oregon
Three Island Crossing, now an Idaho state park west of Glenns Ferry, had many hazards a 19th-century overlander dreaded in a river ford: deep, fast water, an uneven bottom with treacherous holes, and a local Indian population who sometimes would help and other times harass emigrants. The process of fording was tricky and dangerous under the best of conditions. If a wheel plunged into a hidden hole, the wagon might tip and roll, pulling the yoked oxen and any passengers underwater to drown. Possessions drifting downstream from the overturned wagon might be ﬁshed from the current, but food would be ruined and the loss of
Several oxen would be devastatlng With no draft animals, emigrants were forced to abandon their wagon and most of their belongings and continue on foot, carrying what they could.
The bottom is very uneven; there are holes found of six or eight feet in width, many of them swimming. Those crossing this stream can escape the deepest of these holes by having horsemen in the van and at each side; it is necessary that there be attached to each wagon four or six yoke of oxen, the current being swift; and in the passage of these holes. . .when one yoke is compelled
to swim, the others may be in shallow water.
From the north side of Three Island Crossing, the main route of the Oregon Trail leaves the Snake River and heads directly northwest into the foothills. In about six miles the trail reaches Alkali Creek, where Theodore Talbot, a young member of John C. Fremont’s 1843 exploratory expedition, recorded a heartrendirlg encounter with an improverished but dignified Shoshone family
The starving family of ﬁve approached the company’s campﬁre and watched silently as the men sat at their evening meal. “The little party watched the progress of our meal in eager expectation: all pinched alike by famine, their mouths watering as they gazed with riveted eyes on the food, which we thankless and ungrateful as we are, were ready but a few moments before to condemn and repine against, ” wrote Talbot. The men of the expedition, which included Bidwell’s wagon guide, Thomas Fitzpatrick, graciously shared their food. Then:
“Old Fitzpatrick, like the rest of us, moved by their misery offered to adopt their little boy and thus rescue him from the sad fate which it seemed probably would await him, ” Talbot recounted. “But his oﬂers were useless. The mother lent a deaf ear to every argument that could be adduced, her only answer being ‘Paleface I love my child’! and with tearful eyes she drew her son closer.... ”
Such moments of shared humanity between white and Indian people along the trails must have happened often, especially during the early years of the emigration. Judging from emigrant reminiscences and journal accounts like Talbot’s, people were deeply moved by these personal encounters and passed down the stories to their children. But because these accounts did not command public attention at the time, stories of conﬂict came to weigh much more heavily in the history of the trails.
About 11 miles beyond Alkali Creek, the Oregon Trail merges with the North Alternate trail, used by the few emigrants who had crossed the river at various points upstream. Near that junction, wagons rolled past a popular hot spring and a rock formation later called Teapot Dome, and soon were joined by more trafﬁc entering from the east via the Goodale Cutoff. Continuing northwestward, travelers paused at Bonneville Point overlook to view the lovely Boise River Valley below. Boise, named by French-Canadian trappers, means wooded, and the trees along the river were the ﬁrst the emigrants had seen in many miles. From Bonneville Point, it is about 40 miles to the modern border of Idaho and Oregon. Within that stretch of trail occurred one of the earliest, most brutal and highly publicized wagon train massacres along the entire Oregon Trail. In August 1854, about 30 Shoshone ﬁghters attacked the 20-member Ward Party following a dispute over a horse near present-day Caldwell. Several men from a train up ahead, searching for lost livestock, encountered the attack in progress and attempted rescue. They retreated under heavy ﬁre after
one of their number was mortally wounded. When the ﬁght was finished, eighteen emigrant men, women, and children from the Ward train lay dead; only two boys, both wounded, survived, hidden in the brush. U.S. Army investigators arrested four Shoshone men for the killings the next year, and a tribunal of army ofﬁcers tried and convicted them. Soldiers shot one of the prisoners as he tried to escape, and hanged the other three men on gallows erected over the emigrants’ mass grave at Caldwell. Two more Shoshone men later were executed separately by the army for the Ward attack.
. . .It was found that the Indians had burned the wagons and had also burned up the children. . .. This is one of the most horrible, massacres of which I ever heard.
The Oregon Trail continues West from that sad scene for 25 miles to the Fort Boise trading post, on the east bank of the Snake River near today’s Parma. Fort Boise was established in 1834, with the backing of the Hudson’s Bay Company, to compete with Nathaniel Wyeth’s Fort Hall. It originally stood on the bank of the Boise River but was relocated about seven miles in 1838 to the conﬂuence of the Boise and Snake Rivers. This Hudson’s Bay Company operation was staffed in part by Hawaiian (Ovvyhee) employees and was a popular emigrant supply point for many years. The company abandoned the post in 1855 following the attack on the Ward Party. From Fort Boise, the primary route of the Oregon Trail crosses the Snake River one last time and enters today’s state of Oregon, where it strikes northwestward to the Columbia River.
But only about half of Oregon- bound emigrants took the main northern route from the Snake River to Fort Boise. Back at Three Island Crossing,
Back at Three Island Crossing, high water sometimes prevented emigrants from fording to the north side of the Snake River; and some travelers were simply too afraid of the swift, dark water to chance a crossing even under normal conditions. Happily, there was an option: wagons could continue down the south side of the Snake River and avoid the dangerous crossing here and again at Fort Boise. Unhappily, the route was rougher and notoriously dry and grassless.
This is, perhaps, the most rugged, desert and dreary country,
etween the Western borders of the United States and the shores of the Pacific. It is nothing else than a wild, rocky, barren wilderness, of wrecked and ruined nature, a vast field of volcanic desolation.
And it was as vulnerable to violence as the primary route north of the river. On September 9-10, 1860, Bannocks and Shoshones carried out a two-day siege of the 44-member Utter-Van Ornum wagon train west of today’s town of Grand View, Idaho. This was one of the rare instances where emigrants circled their wagons for protection, as in popular Western movies of the 1950s. But that defensive action did not save them: 11 of the company, including two women and three small children, died in the initial attacks, and the others ﬂed for their lives into the sagebrush. About 30 Shoshone and Bannock men died in the attack, as well.
Events during and after the fight are complicated and often sordid, involving heroism, loyalty, and self-sacriﬁce as well as cowardice, betrayal, cruelty, and self-serving lies that delayed and misdirected rescue efforts. Seventeen survivors of the initial attack soon regrouped in the sagebrush and moved on foot down the river into present-day Oregon, casually harried by Indians along the way. After struggling along on a starvation diet for nearly 70 miles, the weak and exhausted emigrants halted when they reached the Owyhee River. The ordeal they suffered during their march and in their desert death camp east of Owyhee, Oregon, in some ways surpasses that of the better-known Donner Party. As they lay miserably in camp praying for rescue, the starving survivors of the Utter Disaster traded
their few weapons and much of their clothing to local Shoshones in exchange for ﬁsh, but the Shoshones soon moved on and left them to their fate. Days passed under the hot sun; one by one the people were dying. In desperation, the Van Ornum family and three unrelated emigrants decided to walk out and ﬁnd help. Those remaining in camp resorted to eating the dead in order to survive. Meanwhile, several men who had broken away from the initial ﬁght eventually reached safety and spread news of the attack. The ﬁrst to report was a former soldier who had stolen a horse and deserted the emigrants during the ﬁght. He claimed to be the only survivor of the wagon train massacre, and he told so many conﬂicting stories that authorities initially did not believe a word of it. Accurate accounts from a pair of brothers who stumbled into the Umatilla Indian Agency at the Columbia River ﬁnally spurred rescue efforts. On October 19, thirty-nine days after the attack, a U.S. Army relief expedition searching for survivors along the Burnt River found and rescued two of the wagon party who had become separated from the main group. On October 25, forty—f1ve days after the attack, the rescuers found the remaining 10 pitiable survivors awaiting death in their Ovvyhee River encampment. Near today’s Huntington, Oregon, roughly 50 miles from the starvation camp, soldiers also discovered the mutilated
and Scattered remains Of the Van Ornum group that had gone in search of help. Four children with that group were unaccounted for, evidently taken captive. In the end, only 16 of the Utter-Van Ornum Party—including one captive boy who was given up by the Northwestern Shoshones two years later—made it alive out of that “most rugged, desert, and dreary country.”
About ten o’clock in the morning we saw signal fires oﬁ‘ a few miles from our camp and we knew that either they were coming to kill us or help was close at hand and strange as it may seem. . . my heart was so benumbed by my terrible sufferings that I hardly cared which it was.